Some people need a catalyst to spur them to become who they were always meant to be: better, wiser, stronger. Adrien Thomas’s catalyst, as we learn in Ali Shaw’s The Trees, is more catastrophic than most. One night, he goes to sleep after eating cheap takeaway and sulking about his life. When he wakes in the morning, he discovers that the primeval forest has returned with a vengeance. Massive trees have erupted everywhere, destroying houses, roads, and anything that stands in their path. Civilization collapses as the trees rise. But Adrien, miserable and cowardly as he is, now has a mission in life: to find his wife.
The Trees is a story about learning what we are capable of. The main story belongs to Adrien. Adrien used to be a teacher, until he gave it up because he couldn’t stand his pupils’ bullying. He never found his purpose in life. Instead, he would spent his days worrying about everything and annoying his wife. Before the trees came, Adrien’s wife went to a conference in Ireland. Without planes or boats, the Irish Sea seems an insurmountable barrier. Apart from that, without his new friend Hannah’s help, Adrien wouldn’t have made it very far in this brave new world.
As Adrien slowly (sometimes painfully so) learns to stop worrying about everything and giving up before he starts anything, Hannah learns just how brutal nature can be. Before the trees came, Hannah worked at a plant nursery. She learned as much as she could about the natural world. When the trees came, Hannah briefly entertained the hope that humanity could now live in Edenic harmony with nature. Humans being humans, however, eventually disabuse Hannah of her naiveté. So while Adrien learns how to be less of a coward, Hannah learns that the good sometimes have to do bad thing to protect their own.
Together, Adrien, Hannah, Hannah’s son Seb, and Hiroko—a Japanese student stranded in England while on a school trip—make their way west through the forest. They are possibly the least likely questers in literary history. Adrien has no clue what he’s doing most of the time. Seb and Hiroko would be happy just wandering off into the woods to live like wild people. After Hannah badly compromises her principles, she frequently gets lost in self-castigation.
The quartet are a mess and they could really have used a wizard a couple of times. They never get a wizard, but they have their guides. Hannah occasionally spots kirin, who show her where the group needs to go when they have a crisis. Adrien’s helpers, the whisperers, are less obviously helpful. They haunt him rather than actively intercede for him. It isn’t until much later that Adrien (and we, the readers) learn what they were trying to tell our erstwhile hero.
I was hooked on The Trees from the first chapter. The only thing that keeps me from giving this delightfully tense adult fable a five-start review is a slow, bloody passage that takes place after the questers arrive in Ireland. The narrative looses touch with the mystery of the forest for a little too long while Hannah wrestles with her conscience. But the ending put the novel right back on track. On balance, I really enjoyed this book.
Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: recommended for readers with a tendency to give up too soon or to beat themselves up when they make mistakes.